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Family and Student Voice: Holding Space and Time for All Voices

By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support

COVID-19 has brought educators and families together in ways we couldn’t have imagined a year ago. Many parents are serving as teachers while their children are doing distance or hybrid learning. Educators are more directly involved in supporting social emotional learning, ensuring the physical safety of students, and responding to gaps in basic needs than they have been in the past. While not every community, family, or student is being served equally and not every family-school relationship has been enhanced, we have seen that when schools take the time to ask families and students directly what they need, they are better able to meet those needs.

Families Know What They Need

Transformational leaders inspire those they serve to take actions to reach a common goal. This goal is not one the leader has dreamed up in a vacuum, but rather one that takes into account the needs, wants, and goals of those in their community. Families—a crucial part of each school community—have always known what is in the best interest of their children. Many of them have simply been waiting to be asked. Learn more in our recent webinar The Future of Education: Equity, Inclusion, and Racial Justice.

Ann Smith, JD, MBA, Executive Director of the African Caribbean American Parents of Children with Disabilities (AFCAMP), reminds us that there are many players in the process of educating students (Smith, 2020):

  1. Parents, grandparents, family members, and guardians

  2. Children

  3. Teachers

  4. Paraprofessionals

  5. School and District Administrators

  6. Advocates

  7. Attorneys

  8. State Departments of Education

Yet, districts and principals tend to rely only on a handful of leaders—who are overwhelmingly white—at the very top when making crucial decisions that directly affect students and their families. Many schools have Parent-Teacher Associations that provide a venue for family opinion and school boards invite parents to meetings to express their views during small sections of the agenda. But these mechanisms for feedback are available only to a small minority of parents and families, due to accessibility, scheduling, or cultures that don’t feel welcoming or hospitable to all parents and families.  So, are schools and districts truly listening to these families and students?

Listening Requires Opening Our Minds and Hearts

Despite the fact that more than half of American students are not white, 78% of principals are (Fay, 2019). No matter how much a white principal can empathize with their non-white students and families, they will never be able to truly understand the complexities of the discrimination and systemic racism that they face. In addition to race, equity issues exist around socio-economic status, class, disability, language, gender, LGBTQ identy, and family structure. Because of this, it is crucial that all school leaders, especially those who do not share the same burdens as their students, make time and space to hear their experiences, and to ask them what changes they want to see.

AFCAMP, which has been doing just that for many years, emphasizes that we must endeavor to move towards equity in all of the systems that affect a child’s life, including the education, health, and juvenile justice systems (AFCAMP, n.d.). Listening to families’ and students’ stories about their encounters with these systems and how they have negatively impacted their mental health can help illuminate areas of potential change.

How Schools Can Create Spaces for Listening

Families and students have unique needs and they also have unique preferences for how to share their feedback for schools. It’s important to offer a variety of avenues for both students and families to express their needs and desires, including:

  1. Regular town hall meetings

  2. Digital and/or paper surveys

  3. Comment boxes

  4. Social media polls or chats

  5. Online or in-person listening sessions around specific topics

  6. E-mail, phone call, or text message outreach to members of communities whose voices have not been captured

The COVID-19 pandemic has both pushed us closer together and further apart. On a recent call, Ann Smith said, “Out of crises rise opportunities. Out of a terrible pandemic, one opportunity that’s come out of this is that there is no way we can ever ignore the disparities in health outcomes again. It’s been raised to a level of a jack-in-the box. Once you’ve let it out, it can’t ever go back in.” Now that school leaders are unable to ignore the disparities affecting the physical, mental, and social emotional health of their students, it’s time to open our hearts and minds and listen to what students and their families have been trying to tell us.


African Caribbean American Parents of Children with Disabilities (AFCAMP). (n.d.). Who we are.

Smith, A. (2020). Future of Education: Inclusion, Equity, and Racial Justice. New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center.


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